Most of us were taught in school about Abraham Lincoln’s humble origins: the log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, his lack of formal education, and colorful tales of rail splitting and backwoods adventures. But the traditional American mythology leaves out a lot about Lincoln’s formative years. Lincoln was born at the beginning of the Second Decade into a complex and deeply contested environment, shaped by economic hardship, conflict with Native Americans, and simmering resentments over slavery and land ownership. Add to this the ravages of disease and environmental hazards, such as the dreaded “milk sickness” that almost wiped out his family, and a picture of Lincoln’s childhood emerges that you may not have thought about. Furthermore, only recent (21st century) scholarship has discovered a previously unknown aspect of Lincoln: the rare genetic disorder, called MEN2B, from which he suffered, and which may well have strongly influenced one of the most significant events in all of American history.
In this episode, historian Sean Munger pierces through the “log cabin mythology” surrounding Lincoln in an attempt to understand his origins and the challenges he faced while growing up. You’ll not only learn what life in a log cabin was really like, but you’ll also meet Lincoln’s colorful family (and step-family), discover why trembling cows are terrifying, and you’ll get a thought-provoking look at how genetics can affect history. This episode may cause you to rethink everything you thought you knew about America’s 16th President.
Additional Materials About This Episode
Here is the photo of Abraham Lincoln referred to in the episode. Taken in February or March 1865, it clearly depicts a man dying of a wasting illness.
Artist’s depiction of Nancy Hanks Lincoln. While we have no idea what she really looked like and this painting was done before the MEN2B hypothesis was known, it is curious that the artist chose to portray her with long, spindly, almost Marfanoid hands.
Here is a link (Amazon) to Dr. John G. Sotos’s book, The Physical Lincoln, which explains the MEN2B hypothesis in great detail. Highly recommended.